WHILE it is perhaps not fashionable or considered “the done thing” to praise a heavyweight for their technical ability, particularly a 40-year-old one from China, tonight (September 23) should be the night that Zhilei Zhang is rightly celebrated; celebrated for not only beating Joe Joyce for a second time but this time producing a near faultless display of technical excellence.
More than just a repeat, or a one-punch deal, or even a display of heavyweight huff and puff, Zhang surgically dissected Joyce from round one before sealing the deal with a stunning southpaw right hook in the third. That, arguably the best punch Zhang has ever thrown, dropped Joyce for the first time in his professional career and also saw him unable to get to his feet before referee Steve Gray counted to ten.
As good as that final shot proved to be, however, Zhang’s performance was about so much more. Also, as good as he was first time around, when busting Joyce up and disfiguring his face in April, Zhang, now 26-1-1 (21), was considerably better tonight.
Tonight, though he expected Joyce to try to be something else, Zhang stuck to what brought him success in fight number one. This meant he was patient, measured, and never in any rush to land a left hand he knew would invariably find its target whenever he decided to let it go. In fact, one might even say that Zhang, across the three rounds he shared with Joyce, was as close to perfect as a heavyweight can be in the company of another world-ranked heavyweight. In round one, he was content to allow Joyce to move and allow himself, in turn, to look for any signs of improvement or adjustment in his opponent. Then, come the second, Zhang was getting busier with punches of his own, especially the left hand, a key punch whenever in the presence of Joyce; for although the Londoner tried moving to the left in round one – that is, away from that left cross – he didn’t move enough in the second and, moreover, his defence was never tight enough and his reactions never quick enough to evade it. As a result, Joyce was staggered by the Zhang left hand early in the round and was then later again in trouble on account of that same shot. Seemingly, no matter how obvious it appeared, and no matter how basic it was in its execution, there was just no way for Joyce to get out of the path of Zhang’s quickest and most potent weapon.
In many ways, too, such was the rate at which this punch was landing, we were all, Joyce included, being lulled into a false sense of security by Zhang. This was ultimately proven in round three when Zhang, having previously used his left cross as a single shot (albeit a powerful one), decided to this time follow the left cross with an immediate right hook, bringing the shot on to Joyce’s jaw, against which it landed and put Joyce in a position in a boxing ring with which he is unfamiliar.
Down there, where few ever expected him to be, Joyce cut a confused and hurt man. His toughness, this thing on which he has relied for so long and perhaps too much, had at last betrayed him at a time when he needed it most. More than that, though, what left Joe Joyce long before his durability was his self-belief. That you could see drain from him on the stool between rounds two and three; a bizarre period in which Joyce, now 15-2 (14), seemed almost reluctant to get off his stool and greet Zhang – standing menacingly in his own corner – in the middle of the ring for round three. By then, one couldn’t help but recall Joyce’s choice of music for his earlier ring entrance: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by way of Jeff Buckley. The hope, at the time, was that Joe Joyce would be saying “hallelujah” at the night’s end, having gained revenge against Zhang and cleared up the one blotch on his professional record to date. As it was, however, Joyce tonight found a god of his own understanding in the form of Zhilei Zhang, a technically astute lump of a heavyweight who, for all Joyce’s own qualities, looks to forever have his number and be able to do with him pretty much whatever he wants.